Last week’s proposals from a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators and President Obama kicked off a high-stakes Congressional effort to reform our broken immigration system.
Part I of our series analyzed what the senators and the President had to say about the treatment of those 11 million undocumented people who are already here in America, with a special focus on the issue of border security.
Part 2 examines how both proposals treat the legal immigration system, including family- and employment-based issues.
Both Senate and presidential proposals target two failed components of the legal immigration system. The first governs how legal residents and U.S. citizens bring immediate family members to America. The second deals with the numbers and conditions of temporary visas for high-tech and agricultural workers.
The Senate acknowledged that “substantial visa backlogs” are forcing families to live apart, which “incentivizes illegal immigration.” In other words, the “failed and irrational“ legal immigration system actually makes “a legal path to entry . . . insurmountably difficult for well-meaning immigrants.” Indeed, roughly half of all immigrants who are currently undocumented came to the country legally, but lapsed into undocumented status because of insufficient visa quotas for certain countries and family categories, bureaucratic and administrative mess-ups or difficulty navigating the complex immigration system.
As of November 2012, about 4.5 million people languished in the legal immigration “backlog;” 4.3 million were waiting for family-based visas, the rest for employment-based visas. There are currently only 226,000 family visas and 140,000 employment visas available each year, numbers that have not been adjusted to keep up with the increased needs.
Despite the pent up demand, many visas go unused each year, often because of administrative errors and bureaucracy. From 1998-2007, an estimated 210,000 visas were “lost” — or unused.
The resulting family-based immigration backlogs have caused enormous problems for Washington State’s large immigrant communities, especially those from the Philippines, India, Mexico and China, places where the wait times for family members are the longest. A U.S. citizen of Filipino origin and a U.S. legal permanent resident of Mexican origin would both wait about 15 years to bring an adult unmarried child to live with them.
The plight of Filipino World War II veterans, some of whom live in our state, is one of the most wrenching examples of the broken system. Filipino WW II veterans served with distinction alongside U.S. troops, but were stripped of promised benefits by the U.S. government after the war. When they were finally offered citizenship through the 1990 Naturalization Act, they settled in the U.S. and sponsored their children to come and live with them. Two decades later, the ones who are still alive are still waiting for their children to join them. Others have died, permanently separated from their families.
The president’s proposal specifically addresses recapturing unused visas, and increasing the annual number of visas and country caps for family-based immigration, all important steps for any effective reform package.
Another component of family immigration deals with same-sex couples. Current immigration law allows a U.S. citizen to sponsor his or her immigrant husband or wife, first for permanent residence, and after three years for citizenship. But the federal government still does not recognize gay marriage. Even though same-sex marriage is now legal in Washington and eight other states, same-sex partners cannot be sponsored under federal immigration law.
Otts Bolisay, a former gay colleague of mine at OneAmerica, is a native of the Bahamas. He has been living in America for 24 years — on various types of visas and always in fear that he would be forced to leave. For 13 of those years, Otts has been with the same partner, an American citizen. “I found love,” he said. “I can get married now, finally. But I can’t stay.”
President Obama’s immigration reform proposal includes same-sex couples. The Senate framework does not. Sen. John McCain recently called the same-sex issue a “red herring,” and compared it to adding “taxpayer-funded abortion” to a final immigration reform bill.
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